Category Archives: Thailand

‘Le mort du guerre’

manicured

Reading various editorials and such about Memorial Day, I’m reminded of our time in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, where so many suffered so much as prisoners of the Japanese during what is referred to locally as “the war of 1939-1945.”

Specifically, I’m reminded of how deeply impressed I was by how beautifully maintained the cemetery for British and Dutch POWs was.

Yes, I know this is American Memorial Day (known in SC, at least until recently, as “Yankee Memorial Day”). But this is what I thought of. And there is an American angle to this mostly British story.

monument

The monument says 356 Americans died building the railway; Wikipedia says 133. I don’t know which is right.

You’ve seen the picture of me standing in front of The Bridge on the River Kwai. Well, that was taken by the Thai wife of one of a trio of American veterans I ran into next to the bridge. It was hard to miss them — two middle-aged white guys and a black guy busily painting and restoring the monument at right. Even though two of them were wearing the proverbial Asian conical hat.

They were from an American veterans’ lodge in Bangkok. They had come to spruce up the one monument I saw in the town to the 133 Americans who died building the Death Railway or Burma Railway connecting Bangkok to Rangoon for the Japanese.

I asked them how to find the cemetery where the POWs lay (thinking at this point there would be Americans there among the Brits). They gave me rough directions — too rough, it would turn out — and an idea of how long it would take to walk there. I thanked them for their service, got my picture taken, and hiked back upriver to our resort.

When I got there, we decided to go see the cemetery before dark, which was coming on soon. So we headed out in the general direction on the Maenamkwai Road. Maenamkwai ran parallel to the river, and was something of a party district, as evidenced by the signs in front of pubs offering such experiences as “Get Drunk for 10 baht” — which seemed both a fiscal and physical impossibility, 10 baht being just under 30 cents, but I don’t know because I didn’t test it. Those kinds of places were a bit… unsavory. Quite a few of the patrons were white men about my age — some Brits, some other nationalities — who could occasionally be seen groping the pretty young Thai girls.

We began to despair of finding the cemetery based on the veterans’ directions and the insufficiently detailed map we’d obtained at our resort. Finally, we decided to ask directions of a typically seedy-looking white guy we encountered coming out of a Tesco Express. He wasn’t, as I’d hoped, a Brit. He was French, and had no English. I was enormously proud that, though I think of myself as having no French, I managed to come up with “le mort du guerre” in my effort to tell him what we sought. (Google Translate says I should have said “les morts de la guerre,” but whatever — he seemed to understand). However, he was much confused by our map and perhaps by his own whereabouts — I suspected that he’d spent at least 10 baht at one of the local establishments — and his directions were decidedly vague.

But we carried on, and eventually found it, a few blocks further.

As I said, I was deeply impressed by what we found. Not just the sheer number of graves — almost 7,000, according to Wikipedia — but how meticulously they had been cared for. One section was cordoned off, where someone was putting in new sod so as the improve upon the near-perfection. I was astounded that a graveyard so far away from the families these men left behind was maintained to this extent. (I noted the plaque saying the land was the gift of the Thai people, but I learned later that the graves are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.)

When we arrived we were accosted by a couple of young Thai women. One of them explained that her friend was studying English, and had come here hoping to find someone to practice with — which impressed me with her initiative and desire to learn (if only that Frenchman had had such an ambition). So we chatted a bit along the lines of “Hello, how are you?” Then I excused myself because the light was failing and I wanted to explore the cemetery.

My aim was to find the Americans, but there were none. I kept walking from section to section, thinking that the next one would be the American grouping. No luck. I would later learn that the American remains had been repatriated. Eventually, I gave up on my chauvinistic impulse, and appreciated what I found. Most were from the Commonwealth, although there was a big Dutch section with 1,896 graves.

All these mostly young men, who died under such horrific conditions, at the hands of an enemy that regarded and treated them as less than human, under that generation’s twisted version of the Bushido code. All those families that would never even be started back home, on the other side of the world.

As we headed back, we passed Beata Mundi Regina War Monument Catholic Church, which was founded by some Carmelite nuns who located there to care for the graves. I don’t know whether they are still the ones who do that work, under the aegis of the commission, but whoever does does so lovingly.

That night, I purchased The Bridge on the River Kwai from iTunes — I wanted my daughter to have some idea of what had happened there — and tried to watch it on my iPad, but the wi-fi had trouble handling it. I would finish watching it after I got home, and also order the DVD of “The Railway Man” from Netflix.

But of course, there’s no way I will ever fully appreciate what those men experienced there.

 

What space travelers need (hint: it’s not a towel)

A low point from our recent trip to Thailand:

This was some sort of super-duper, futuristic towel that my wife had had the foresight to buy before our trip. Small-folding, super-absorbent, and super-fast-drying so you can use it again before long. Whoever found it may not have recognized it as a towel. Its texture was like a cross between felt and rubber — hard to describe, really.

I had thought it really cool that, like a Douglas Adams character, I was a traveler who always knew where his towel was — in his backback:

Somebody who can stay in control of virtually any situation is somebody who is said to know where his or her towel is. The logic behind this statement is presented in chapter 3 of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy thus:

… a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: nonhitchhiker) discovers that a hitchhiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, washcloth, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet-weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitchhiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitchhiker might accidentally have “lost”. What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is, is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Technically, I still knew where it was — I had left it on a doorknob of a farmhouse in the countryside of Khorat. But I no longer had the use of it, which of course was the point of such knowledge. I also had most of those other things listed in the above paragraph, and more — just not my towel, which saddened me, because it made me feel less hoopy.

But now I read that in the future, a space traveler’s most critical accoutrement will not be his towel. In fact, “A 3-D printer may one day be in the carry-on luggage of every savvy solar system traveler…”

They are experimenting with a 3-D printer that would make bricks suitable for airtight buildings and radiation-proof shelters using the grit that blows across Mars’s red surface.

In Huntsville, Ala., Ms. Werkheiser, NASA’s 3-D print project manager, is starting to print curved walls and other structures using imitation Martian sand as an ink. Engineers at the European Space Agency are exploring ways to use lunar dust as an ink to print out an entire moon base. London-based architects Foster + Partners have designed a printable lunar colony.

And if astronauts ever do attempt to reach Mars, they may survive the journey by eating pizza made with a 3-D-printed food system for long duration space missions, now under development in Texas…

These printers will use materials found on the moon and on Mars as “ink.”

Frankly, on this topic I’m a little like those people who believe the moon landings were a hoax. I DO believe in the moon landings, let me be clear, but I still don’t understand how any sort of complex item — say, pizza — can be recreated so that it is functional. I see how you might print a plastic statue of the object; I just don’t understand how it could work like the original.

In other words, I can imagine having something like a low-functioning 3D PDF — like a fax that is a picture of text, but doesn’t give you text that you can work with, because the document does not know that the text is text. If you can follow me.

But the boffins say it will work. If so, I suppose, in the future you won’t need to have your towel, because you can always print another…

When the package is in Thai, you just have to guess

Bryan Caskey posted this on his blog last night, about the small tokens I brought back to show my appreciation for his handling this blog while I was out of the country:

Gifts from Thailand are not always what they seem.

Everyone knows the saying “Beware Greeks bearing gifts.” However, most people are not aware of the somewhat lesser-known saying “Beware of Americans bearing gifts from Thailand.” Oh yeah, it’s totally a saying. Go look it up.

I had some firsthand experience with an American bearing gifts from Thailand when a friend of mine brought me back some gifts from his trip to Thailand. I was surprised and gratified that he even thought of me, because I didn’t really think I merited a gift to begin with.
In any event, the first gift was really wonderful. it was a silk necktie. A tie. A Thai tie, to be exact. I love telling people that I have a Thai tie. Here’s the my Thai tie, actually tied:
My Thai tie
It’s actually quite snappy. I actually prefer red ties, and the elephant look is very Asian. All in all, it’s a smashingly successful gift. I wear a tie pretty much everyday, so the cliche gift of a tie is actually a good gift for me.
In any event, the second gift was a lot funnier, or at least it ended up being funnier. After giving me the tie, Brad pulled out a little candy bag, which he said he picked up for me, because it said “M16” on the packaging.
So, figure this is candy, right? The little cartoonish-smiley face guy in the upper lefthand corner is playful, right? I think we both kind of figured that it would be a fruit candy that would be some sort of Thailand jolly rancher, or something.
A couple of days went by, but eventually I figured that I’d open up the Thailand candy and maybe try it. I mean, how weird could it possibly be, it’s candy!
Yeah.
Seeds
Just seeds. Just plain ol’ seeds. Not candy seeds. Not chocolate covered seeds. Not seeds dipped in yogurt. Just seeds. Joke’s on me, I guess. I think I could plant them and grow some Thai-watermelons. In fact, that’s actually what I did. I’ll let you know how that turns out.
By the way, Brad. I think you should have declared this agricultural product to US Customs upon your return. Oh well. I’m sure no one will know. Our secret.

Actually, we did try to bring back some papaya seeds — the gift of a hostess, who lives on a farm in Nakhon Ratchasima, who was distressed to learn that we don’t have papayas growing in OUR yard back home.

We were looking forward to planting them and cherishing the plants to see if they could possibly survive. But in a fit of conscience I showed them to the agricultural inspection guy in Hawaii, and he confiscated them. The clincher was the large, dead beetle that had crawled into the plastic bag with the seeds. I think he might have let them go without the bug…

Who knew they sold, as food, the one part of the watermelon that we’ve bred out of our watermelons in the States? Hey, maybe that’s what happened to all the seeds that used to be in melons over here — they get packaged up and sent to Thailand…

I can’t give blood for a year, because Kanchanaburi is on a list

Bridge

Well, I went to give platelets at the Red Cross yesterday, and I answered “yes” to the question about whether I’d been out of the country in the past three years, and that led to a long discussion about just where I had been.

Turns out, it wasn’t a problem that I was in Thailand per se. The Red Cross breaks it down much more locally than that, and the problem was that one of the many places we visited in Thailand was listed as posing a risk of malaria.

That was Kanchanaburi. Those of you who were following me on social media may have already seen the above picture of me taken in that town. I’m standing in front of “the” Bridge On the River Kwai, which while it’s not the one from the movie (the movie was fictional, based on a novel inspired by the real-life Death Railway), actually is where the still-active rail line first laid by slave labor (Allied POWs and civilians) under the Japanese crosses the Kwai.

As you can see, I’m looking pretty grubby. If the Red Cross knew everything I’d done that day, they really would have worried. I had spent most of the day with elephants — feeding them by hand, bathing them in the river, and riding them. Taking a midday break from elephant care, we had floated down the Kwai, way out in the country, for 40 minutes, without a boat. Just life vests. Very refreshing.

(We were at this really neat place a few miles out of town that rescues elephants from the logging industry and from begging in the streets, and enlists tourists to help in their daily care. This was the thing my daughter had most wanted to do while we were with her in Thailand, and it did not disappoint.)

Then, on the way back to the resort in Kanchanaburi, I realized we were passing close to the Bridge, which I had only seen in the dark, the night before. So I asked someone to rap on the back of the cab of the songthaew we were riding in, and hopped off alone to go check out the bridge.

I ran into three American veterans from Bangkok who were painting the base of a memorial to the Americans who had died building the railway. The wife of one of them took the above picture.

But I digress. The point is, I can’t give for a year. So some of y’all will have to take up the slack…

Here I'd feeding bananas to a rather elderly elephant named Wasana. She's about 65 years old and a fairly slow eater for an elephant -- so it took a little patience.

Here I’m feeding bananas to a rather elderly elephant named Wasana. She’s about 65 years old and a fairly slow eater for an elephant — so it took a little patience.

All that overwhelming beauty

windward

I’m not just jet-lagged today. I’m experiencing a sort of sensory trough after being overwhelmed by stimuli that unfairly increased what my brain expects to be fed.

After the many gorgeous sights — and tastes, and smells, and sounds — of Thailand, there were those ridiculous couple of days in Hawaii. I had been there before, of course — it was where I had graduated from high school. But I was reminded of why I had trouble, back in my college years, adjusting to the mainland scenery.

This was underlined by my wife’s reaction, during the tour our friend Burl Burlingame gave us of Ford Island, and on a drive the next day around Diamond Head, and on up the Windward coast as far as Kailua — then back across the mountains with a stop at Pali Lookout. She had never been there before, and every place we stopped, she got out and started shooting video with her iPad, turning and exclaiming over the water, the mountains, the colors, the light, that incredible Hawaii air…

A most satisfying experience. I’d be like, “I think you’ll like this next thing,” and she’d be all like, “Wow!” I was never disappointed in her reaction.

My eyes have been filled these last days. Now, back on the diet…

Preview for our trip to Thailand

My daughter in the Peace Corps has posted this video chronicling some of her experiences during the month of January, as apology for not blogging as often as she should:

Please accept this video in exchange for my lack of blog posts/ updates recently. I figure if a picture says a thousand words then a video says a million and that about makes up for my many months of silence.

For my wife and me, this video acts as a sort of trailer, previewing what we are likely to see and hear when we visit Thailand next month.

Yes, we’ve decided to take the plunge and go, both because we haven’t seen our youngest (in person, not counting Skype) in a year, and because, you know, when will we ever get the chance again?

So for the last few months, whatever free time we can find has increasingly been tied up in preparations. First, we had to get new passports. Then, we started the incredibly challenging process of deciding what to take with us.

Why is this so challenging? Because someone involved in this expedition, not yours truly, decided that we should take only what we can take in a single carry-on bag, to avoid the possibility of having to chase checked luggage all over Asia.

This is fine for members of the gender that washes their smallclothes out in hotel room sinks and hangs them on the shower curtain (perhaps some of you gentlemen have noted behavior of this sort). But that’s not my style of travel.

My style of travel was in vogue during the Gilded Age, and involved steamer trunks and servants to carry them and hiring entire floors of the best hotels, and people such as Henry James and E.M. Forster writing books about one’s experiences.

We traveled in a modified form of this fashion to England awhile back. It was the dead of winter, so I packed everything conceivable, most of it into a wheeled suitcase that was almost, but not quite, as large as a steamer trunk. Plus a backpack-style laptop case, into which I crammed said laptop, accessories, drugs and toiletries and a change of clothes in case the big bag should be lost.

Not so this time. Everything must go into a backpack only slightly larger than the laptop bag. It arrived yesterday — an Osprey Farpoint 40, guaranteed to meet the carryon regulations. I’ll keep you posted on efforts to pack it with all I’ll need for 17 days.

If I sound discontented over this challenge, I am not. I see it as an opportunity to strip down to essentials, like Nick Adams in Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River.” If you’ll recall, the war-rattled Nick has to justify the decision to indulge himself with a jar of apple butter by rationalizing that if he’s willing to carry it, it’s OK.

I’ve already decided not to take any apple butter — so you see, I’m making great progress…